Following his decision loss to Keith Jardine (who has reclaimed full “Dean of Mean” status with the victory), former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell is said to be considering retirement. According to trend-follower Kevin Iole of Yahoo Sports!, UFC president Dana White spoke about the possibility of Liddell hanging up his gloves.
“There’s a hunger thing that you have to have to be an elite fighter and I just didn’t see a Chuck Liddell who was as hungry as he used to be,” White reportedly told Iole. “Chuck has made a lot of money in this business and he’s done a lot of things, but he wasn’t the Chuck of old.”
It’s not such a crazy notion when you consider that Liddell has been competing in the UFC since before they had timed rounds. He’ll be thirty-eight in December, which is typically when hand speed and punching power starts to fade. For someone like Randy Couture, that might not mean much, but Liddell is a striker who has always relied on those skills. If he can’t hit harder and faster than everyone else, Liddell becomes just another guy with good footwork and takedown defense.
But I have a hard time believing Liddell will never set foot in the Octagon again. If history is any indicator (and if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t keep deferring to it and refusing to learn from it), Liddell will probably have to be all but forced into retirement.
Great athletes almost always have a difficult time knowing when to quit, and professional fighters are the most notorious for keeping at it long after they should. Consider boxing greats like Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis and George Foreman.
Think about MMA legends like Ken Shamrock and Kazushi Sakuraba and Royce Gracie, even my unofficial life coach Don Frye.
They all kept at it past their prime. They all had to be shepherded into retirement by the fists of younger fighters. It’s hard to watch a hero take beatings he should have never signed up for, and it’s even harder to understand why he can’t see that his skills have deteriorated when everyone else can.
But in a way, it makes sense. I remember interviewing Ken Shamrock and asking him why he kept going for so long when he didn’t particularly need the money, and what he told me was very enlightening and endearing.
He said that a champion fighter has to have a certain personality that makes him push through things a normal person can’t. He has to be the kind of guy who can break his hand on an opponent’s skull and keep swinging. He has to view quitting as an unforgivable sin. If he didn’t, he’d never have become a champion in the first place.
That’s why, when the ravages of age begin to show themselves, he can’t see it for what it is. He thinks it’s one more hardship that he has to push through. He’s always been able to do it before, so his mind isn’t programmed to believe that there is an injury or a setback so debilitating as to be final.
It’s something you either have or you don’t, and champions have it. It’s also a tragic gift when age catches up with you. Sure, some guys — Randy Couture, for one — defy the odds, but many more succumb to them.
Think about the great heavyweight boxing champions of the last hundred years. How many of them retired before some sad spectacle in the ring? Lennox Lewis, maybe. And Rocky Marciano, who is still the only heavyweight champ to retire undefeated.
Marciano once said that he knew it was time to quit when the smell of the gym began to make him sick. He said that smell of old sweat and leather and mildew had always been strangely pleasant to him before, but one day he went in to train and it disgusted him. And that was it. He never fought again.
I think that may be what Dana White is referring to in regards to Liddell’s hunger. That hunger to fight and compete and win is something you can’t force and you can’t fake. If that fire isn’t burning in Liddell anymore, then he should call it quits. But I have to think that a man who’s been a top-level fighter for so many years is going to have a hard time letting go of that identity.
Who knows, maybe Liddell has a few more good years left in him. Couture found a second life in his forties, so it’s not unheard of. Only Liddell knows for sure. Something tells me, though, that a decision loss to Keith Jardine isn’t going to be definitive enough for him. Not while Wanderlei Silva — Liddell’s white whale — is still out there.
Liddell is going to have to find out for himself if he can still compete. For most great fighters, it’s a question they can’t stop asking, even after the answer is clearly no.